NAIROBI, Kenya, Apr 6 – Kenya Morans superstar shooting guard Tylor Okari was a budding footballer in his early teen years, likening himself to Didier Drogba or Samuel Eto’o, until a compound fracture brought this high-flying potential career to a screeching halt.
A tackle from an enthusiastic defender as he went through on goal in one of those hood games crushed through his foot, causing multiple fractures.
Other than completely abandon the urge to keep playing, the after-effects of the fracture, whose recovery stretched to over 18 months, forced him to switch sports.
He went the basket way.
“I didn’t do surgery or anything. Just a cast on the leg and left it to heal naturally. It took a year and a half and when I ultimately was able to move freely, I didn’t have the strength I had before and I was a bit scared. So naturally, I couldn’t get back to playing football,” Okari, now a professional basketballer with Bakken Bears in Denmark told Capital Sport from his base in Aarhus.
He wanted to be an engineer or a pilot and certainly had the grades to go that way having scored a clean A- in his KCSE, but his undying passion for sport could not be swayed.
With sports part of his DNA, Okari wasn’t about keen to quit playing. With football now a tough ask, he picked a leaf from some of his siblings and decided to bounce some balls.
-Start of a career
That decision has proved to be a masterstroke. His new-found basketball passion took him to College in the United States where he brushed shoulders with the likes of current NBA superstars Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.
It has further gone on to sail his ship to New Zealand, Switzerland and Denmark where his prestigious vessel is currently docked.
Not only has he settled himself with some big European teams, but he is now a revered Kenyan poster boy, having helped the Morans to the Africa Zone Five title, taking the MVP title, as well as the final of the FIBA Afrocan for the first time ever where he was named in the dream team.
But here is the story of a young boy from Eldoret who has grown to become a Kenyan basketball superstar.
Having seen his football dream slip away like sand through the hour glass, the new-born basketball passion was catalyzed further when he joined Friends School Kamusinga. At form one, he was already in the school team.
“I actually didn’t think I could play much but at Kamusinga I got very good coaches who helped me improve my game. The team was also on top of its game so naturally, I had to match up,” further narrated Okari.
Day by day, month by month, his star continued to shine. In form three, he helped Kamusinga reach the national school games final and was named the Most Valuable Player despite losing to arch-rivals Maseno.
That year proved to be the biggest of Okari’s turning point.
-South Africa basketball training camp
He was selected among five Kenyans to head to South Africa for the Basketball Without Borders National Basketball Association camp alongside Bruce Ndikumana, Joseph Ouma, James Mathiang and Samuel Odera.
He was initially picked out in a larger trials group that also had Valentine Nyankinda and Ronnie Gundo, who are now also part of the national team set up.
“I think that is where I sat back and thought, well, this could actually be a thing. I was on a plane selected among a very talented group of players and when we got there, I actually for the first time saw myself as a basketball player in real life. To be selected in the dream team of 12 after the camp was unimaginable for me,” an excited Okari further explains.
Buffed by the experience he picked up from South Africa, he came back home, once again starred for Friends School and helped them reach the semis of the nationals and the 2010 East Africa School Games in Nakuru in his last year of High School.
After clearing, Okari immediately went into league action and signed up for his local club Eldonets. As an A student, Okari joined Strathmore University where he had a three-month stint before the big call finally came.
-Big move to the United States
“There used to be a coach from the US who would come to Kenya and just watch young lads and through Peter Kiganya, he spotted me and linked me with a college in the States and that is how I moved,” he says.
The budding star joined University of Louisiana at Monroe and played for them for an initial period of four years, starring in collegiate basketball while also keeping a keen eye on his education where he enrolled for a course in Business Management, since his first preference of Engineering was expensive.
“College is what propelled me to where I am today because that is where I was recognized by people and teams. I won a lot during that time playing amateur basketball. Getting to watch those guys play and facing the likes of Embiid and Wiggins as opponents made my confidence grow,” he says.
After clearing his College education, the home-sick Okari travelled back to Nairobi and even before he could get his appetite back to enjoying his favorite chapati and chicken dish, a call came from Sweden and he ended up joining top tier side Solna Vikings.
-Bright start to life in Norway
In his first season, they won the Championship and the young Okari was over the moon. He played for two seasons before leaving in 2017 where he signed up for a three-month summer contract with New Zealand side Taranaki.
It is in Sweden where Okari said he toughened up.
“The league was tough definitely and then I had struggled to get accustomed to the time zones. Sometimes it gets dark at 2pm and all over sudden your mood also becomes dull. The winters in Sweden are also very extreme and challenging,”
“In New Zealand I really enjoyed my time there because it is a very beautiful country with good people and the culture is so friendly,” the nostalgic Okari says.
After the short three-month contract, it was time for Okari’s career to move on and he went ahead to join Swiss side Masagno where in his single season there helped them reach the semi-finals of the national league play-offs.
It didn’t take long before his talent was spotted elsewhere and his current employers Bakken Bears came calling.
“The great Bakken Bears!” Okari exclaims.
-Win Danish title on debut
In his first season with the Bears in 2018 they won the Danish title and went on to reach the quarter finals of the FIBA Euro Cup, losing to a German team. This year was his second in the team and they have just been declared champions again and are preparing for the semis of the Euro Cup.
And true to the fact that he is an integral part of the Bears, they have just extended his contract by a further season. In 89 matches for the Bears, the big banging Okari has averaged 10.4 points per game.
“It is a great place to be, honestly. Very friendly people and they make you feel like family. It wasn’t hard for me to settle down and now I am looking forward to the challenge that is up ahead,” he says.
“I can;t start saying I want to go play in the NBA or something because probably it is not realistic. But I want to move a day at a time and be the best I can be.”
Even as he looks to get his career abroad shining, the Kenya Morans remains extremely close to Okari’s heart.
“Last summer we did amazing things with the guys. We came together with just one single goal of taking the country up. We put aside our ego and individual aspirations and just gave our all to put Kenya on the map. The way we practiced, the way we woke each other at 5am to do morning runs was just amazing and I really enjoyed it,” he narrates.
The fruits of that teamwork was the qualification to the Afrocan where they reached the final, losing to DR Congo. What is most remembered about that tournament though is Okari’s jump-shot two-point winner with one second left on the clock in the round of 16 match against Ivory Coast.
-National team start
Scores were at 83-83 before coach Cliff Owuor called for a time-out with 15 seconds left, then, boom! just like a ticking time bomb.
It was Okari’s first ever involvement with the national team.
“I want to keep doing stuff like that and help the country grow. This is what I am passionate about, to give the country my all,” he states.
His next ambition is on the FIBA Afrobasket qualifiers which were initially set to start in November, and he hopes to help the country attain qualification for the first time since 1993, with the tournament set to be staged in neighboring Rwanda.
The shooting guard wasn’t available for the pre-qualifiers in February in Nairobi as he was held up with club duty.
“This is something that I had made it clear with the boys that I wouldn’t be able to make it for February because the season is at it’s peak. But the good thing is that the qualifiers will be towards the end of the year and this is actually an international window,” he says.
“I was constantly in touch with the team throughout and I remember the final against South Sudan was very nervy. I couldn’t get off the phone with a guy on the bench and every time I was advising them on what to do what play to bring in. I was really tensed,” recalls Okari.
-Tough task for qualifiers
For the qualifiers, Kenya faces a tough ask as they have been drawn in Pool B with giants Angola, Senegal and Mozambique. The top three teams in each group qualify for the final tournament.
“To be honest it will be really hard. Angola is one of the top five teams in Africa. Senegal and Mozambique are also top African teams. I have a Senegalese teammate here at Bakken and he is always teasing me about how they will crush us,”
“But we have the belief. We know that we just need to win two games and we are through. We will give it the best shot we can. We had a plan of doing something this summer with the boys and the coach who has really worked hard for us,”
“Hopefully this Corona menace ends soon and we can get back to doing what we wanted to do. The coach had suggested a training camp as well as several friendly matches to keep us in the shape and build team synergy and together with all the foreign based boys, we said this was a great idea,” Okari notes.
The former Eldonets and Strathmore ace has at the same time called on more corporates to come into the game and grow basketball in the country, saying there is so much talent but the investment is making players shy off.
“The problem is that most players don’t take basketball as their careers so most will not give it an extra push like train on their own, watch videos and all. But with what the Morans have shown, with just a bit of investment we can raise the levels. If more sponsors can come on board then that means more money for the players and they can actually give their full concentration,”
-Showed that it’s possible
“Several Morans players have since made moves out after what we did. We have Bush (Tom Wamukota) who was in Tunisia and is now in Rwanda, we have Okall (Ariel) who is now in Algeria and more players who have been scouted,”
“I like the approach the Morans have taken especially with coach Cliff. The team is run more professionally. We watch video of opponents, analyse the games and then come up with good game plans. That’s the way to go,”
“If we had a few good competitive teams in the league with good structures, I believe we will go far. There are teams like Equity who are doing this and we need more of them.”
Tyler Okari at a glance
Weight: 93kgs (playing weight)
Favorite food: Chapati, ugali, chicken, cake.
Music: Any; open to all.
Chill Mode: Watching opponents on YouTube, learning how to cook, music.